Today is my last official day volunteering in the library. I will still be helping out with the website and special events, plus I’m on the board of the newly formed Friends group, so it’s not like I’m going anywhere. Still, the weekly commitment to physically staff the library is now a thing of the past.
As a way of saying farewell, and in no particular order except maybe autobiographical, here are my Top Ten Movie Libraries:
“Peter, at 1:40 PM at the main branch of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue, ten people witnessed a free floating, full torso, vaporous apparition. It blew books off shelves from twenty feet away and scared the socks off some poor librarian!”
They don’t make them like this anymore. Hadley Freeman has written frequently about her favorite film, full of nostalgia for 1980s “crap science” and the New York of her childhood. Still, those of us who didn’t grow up in New York are right at home with that opening shot and closeup of one of the stone lions, whose name is Fortitude (the other lion on the south side of the steps is named Patience).
You’re very handy. I can tell. I bet you like to read a lot, too.
Print is dead.
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
I left the Hogwarts library off this list because it was just too obvious. The animated Beauty and the Beast library is almost as duh-inducing and Disneyfied as Harry Potter, I admit, but I was still a kid when I saw this and can’t dismiss something so formative. I’m not immune to the psychology of Pinterest and this did indeed influence my expectations of men: “I want to do something for her.” It’s as easy as that.
The Breakfast Club (1985)
Most of the movie takes place in the library, which is actually the school’s gym turned into a library set, thus explaining the high ceilings, balconies, and giant modern art sculpture in the center of the room. This movie came out in 1985; I first saw it at my middle school best friend’s house, probably ten years later. I remember at the time experiencing the film as this long, epic Saturday full of teenage pain and the struggle against authority. Now when I watch it, it seems so much less expansive–exactly like high school.
Major League (1989)
The library scene is actually much longer than this, with Rene Russo wearing librarian glasses and screaming “I have a much better body than she does!” in the quiet reading room of what is actually the Northwestern University library in Chicago. Reading through the script and seeing the details of the stewardesses, the paternity suit, and Miss Dairy Queen all stacked up together, I’m a little disappointed in Lynn for taking Jake back, even if he is the true hero of the film. He didn’t even read Moby Dick “cover to cover, babe.” Not really.
Who saved Ishmael at the end?
Nobody. It was Queequeg’s coffin.
High Society (1956)
High Society (1956) is my favorite “classic” movie. It’s a remake of The Philadelphia Story, but the cast and the Newport setting make it worth the trouble. The library is the backdrop for two songs: Frank Sinatra crooning You’re Sensational to Grace Kelly during an afternoon tour of “the playground of the rich,” and Frankie teaming up with Bing Crosby for the boozy Well, Did You Evah during her bachelor(ette?) party that evening. I love when the bar pops out of the wall and Sinatra quips: “I had a bed that did that once.” I was also thrilled when Robbie Williams and John Lovett covered Well, Did You Evah back in 2001.
More than any other library on this list, this is the one from which I will be drawing decor inspiration. The Nouveau Riche Oblige fireplace upon which Madeline Kahn exquisitely smashes her wine glass is perfect ornamentation for this film. In the movie’s murder game, the library is where Miss Scarlet kills the cop with a lead pipe while he’s on the phone (twice). The trivia surrounding this box office flop is copious, but here’s something new I just learned: Carrie Fisher was originally cast as Miss Scarlet, but entered rehab right before rehearsals began.
Wings of Desire (1987)
This film’s Hollywood remake City of Angels came out in 1998, when I was a sophomore in high school and just starting to learn about some sort of culture outside my hometown. The world was divided into people who liked being emotionally manipulated by Meg Ryan/Nicolas Cage and those who didn’t. I couldn’t explain why; I didn’t even know it was a remake. A screening of Der Himmel über Berlin in my college German film class helped clarify the issue. For example, one film features the Berlin State Library as a way to access the thoughts of a raw and divided city, while the other shoehorns Hemingway and the San Francisco Public Library into a story ostensibly about Los Angeles.
Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008)
I was ruminating on libraries as romantic settings and remembered this scene, which I’ve always loved. The Square Root of Three is such a sweet little poem, and Harold’s new-wavy goth cameo is just icing on the cake.
The Square Root of Three by David Feinberg
I’m sure that I will always be
A lonely number like root three
The three is all that’s good and right,
Why must my three keep out of sight
Beneath the vicious square root sign,
I wish instead I were a nine
For nine could thwart this evil trick,
with just some quick arithmetic
I know I’ll never see the sun, as 1.7321
Such is my reality, a sad irrationality
When hark! What is this I see,
Another square root of a three
Has quietly come waltzing by,
Together now we multiply
To form a number we prefer,
Rejoicing as an integer
We break free from our mortal bonds
With the wave of magic wands
Our square root signs become unglued
Your love for me has been renewed
Party Girl (1995)
Sorry about the quality of the video–this movie can be hard to track down. It’s one of those films I reallllly wish I had seen earlier in life. Club kids and Lebanese street food are things I should have been exposed to sooner, and the whole Dewey-Decimal-meets-beats-and-decibels juxtaposition of books and records makes me smile. The movie came out in 1995; I probably didn’t see it until 2012 or so, and I ultimately got around to it because someone used this quote from Mary:
“I would like a nice, powerful, mind-altering substance.
Preferably one that will make my unborn children grow gills.”
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
And here we are, back where it all started: the 42nd Street Branch of the New York Public Library. Now known as the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, the Central Building set the scene for many beloved New York stories. Carrie Bradshaw planned an ill-fated wedding there, and her literary predecessor, Holly Golightly, declared “I don’t think this place is half as nice as Tiffany’s.” Patience and Fortitude make an appearance in the original novella, which makes me appreciate the callback in the film:
“Late one afternoon, while waiting for a Fifth Avenue bus, I noticed a taxi stop across the street to let out a girl who ran up the steps of the Forty-second Street public library. She was through the doors before I recognized her, which was pardonable, for Holly and libraries were not an easy association to make. I let curiosity guide me between the lions, debating on the way whether I should admit following her or pretend coincidence. In the end I did neither, but concealed myself some tables away from her in the general reading room, where she sat behind her dark glasses and a fortress of literature she’d gathered at the desk.”
Three Bonus TV Libraries
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)
This is a tough one because the library is the literal center of the first three seasons. It was pointless to pull a scene because so many of them take place there. I am new to the Buffyverse and have no right to criticize, but this is probably the worst use of a library in fiction. It serves as a place to either do research or listen to a long expository speech from Giles. I’m reading that the cast and crew hated these scenes because there was nothing to do, and I feel like that is a very cliched dismissal of libraries as dry and boring. Part of the problem was that NO OTHER STUDENTS EVER USED THE LIBRARY. Libraries should be vibrant and vital to the community, not just a clubhouse for the Scoobies. Even The Magic Box had customers.
I got really excited in the last season, when Buffy welcomes the Übervamp to Thunderdome, because Xander explains they are at the “future site of the new public library, opening up May 2003,” which is when the series finale took place. I thought we were laying the scene for a battle royale in the public library; alas, it took place back at good ol’ Sunnydale High. Still, I cried.
Veronica Mars (2004-2007)
Veronica’s work-study job gives her a central location to serve as a base of command on campus. She also gets to flex that mighty intelligence by mastering the library’s classification system. (Dewey or Congress? Inquiring minds want to know.) She quickly calls up “Third floor, aisle nine” on a fairly obscure reference question, and she does it straight from memory after only working in the library for one full episode.
[Beginning of episode 3.2; Veronica is applying for a job at the campus newspaper.]
VERONICA: I’d take any assignment. If I don’t get this job, the fine people in financial aid have a completely undesirable position in the library all picked out for me.
[End of episode 3.2]
VERONICA VOICEOVER: So it looks like my work study job will be in the library.
My journalism career over before it even really began.
Still, by the next episode, she gets to have the sexy library scene with Logan, so it’s not that bad. This scene got Regina Spektor’s Fidelity in heavy rotation on my Spotify.
Orange is the New Black (2013- )
The literary references are what got me started on OITNB. My boyfriend asked me about Atonement and explained how Piper had spoiled it for another inmate. I love the ever-growing list of books mentioned on the show…
Support your public library… and try not to give the librarians too much trouble!